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Libby Kranz knows the importance of memories. Her memories are all she has left of her daughter, Jennifer, who died at age 6 of brain cancer.
The moment that made Kranz cry the hardest on the day of Jennifer’s funeral, she remembers, was when she placed a beloved ring of her daughter’s next to her ashes, to be buried with her.
She immediately regretted the decision.
“It was one of those things that immediately when it was done, I wanted to dig the ground back up and get it back. I thought I’d made the biggest mistake,” said the Gilroy, California mom.
Kranz found the ring in a bag of costume jewelry she purchased at a garage sale a year before Jennifer’s cancer diagnosis, and it became a prop in a happy game between mother and daughter. Kranz says because she liked the ring, Jennifer graciously told her she could have it… and then she took it back. They traded the ring back and forth over and over during the next year.
“That became our thing – that every once in a while, she would just say, ‘I want my ring back,’ and wear it around for a few minutes and then she’d say, ‘OK, I’ll give it back to you, Mom,’” said Kranz.
“I would always kiss the ring and tell her the five bumps on it were the five loves of my life – my four kids and my husband,” she added.
In October 2013, Jennifer began showing vision and neurological symptoms that led to her being diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), an inoperable brain tumor, on the morning of her birthday.
The coming weeks brought radiation treatments to attempt to shrink the tumor, along with trips to Disneyworld and Disneyland to allow Jennifer to experience both before she died. Kranz’s best friend moved her wedding forward so that Jennifer could be her flower girl. Jennifer’s father, Tony, walked her down the aisle in the ceremony — something he knew he wouldn’t be able to do for Jennifer later in life.
As Jennifer’s health began to decline — an MRI showed that the tumor had spread to other parts of her brain and to her spine — the ring that had been so precious to she and her mom began to wear thin. Kranz asked a jeweler to have the ring dipped and strengthened, but was told because of the costume-jewelry quality of the metal, it would melt and be ruined. The jeweler suggested making a mold of the ring and creating a new one.
“I wasn’t satisfied because I didn’t want a new ring — just like I didn’t want to lose Jennifer. I wanted stuff to stay the same,” said Kranz.
But things didn’t stay the same.
"There was a point when the doctor said we could try chemo, try a couple other options, or we could take her home and keep her comfortable,” Kranz told TODAY Parents. “That was the time my husband and I had the conversation that I refer to as ‘finding the best way to let our child die.’”
In February 2014, Jennifer died in her home, in her mother’s arms.
Kranz says she had planned to bury the jeweler’s mold of the ring with Jennifer, and keep the original. But when she put the mold next to her daughter’s ashes, she decided it wasn’t right and put in the real ring instead.
“I kissed the ring and the last thing I said was, ‘For my five loves — you give it to me when I see you again, Jennifer.’ In my vision, the moment I died, she’d run up to me and hand it back to me. That was what I meant,” said Kranz.
But Jennifer had other plans.
Kranz blogs about Jennifer on the website for Unravel Pediatric Cancer, the non-profit she started in her daughter’s memory. Her candid writing about losing a child drew readers across the world — including Karen Zoucha, a mom of two who lives in Fremont, Nebraska.
“One of Libby’s blogs that she wrote shortly before Jennifer died, she talked about this ring that Jennifer had given her and that meant the world to her. She mentioned she was so upset because the ring was wearing thin and could break…and had found out that the ring was made of bronze and not even real silver and nothing could be done,” said Zoucha. “I remember thinking how unfair this was and being upset myself about this. Here’s a mother about to lose her child and the one thing that she would have left is this ring that has so much meaning between the two of them.”
Zoucha says several months after Jennifer’s death, she was scrolling her Facebook feed when she saw something familiar in a photo from an online yard sale group.
“My eyes immediately zeroed in on what I saw and this sudden emotion took me over and I even spoke out loud while gasping, ‘That’s the ring,’” said Zoucha, who then emailed Kranz and offered to mail it to her.
“I figured there was no way it could be the ring,” said Kranz.
When the package arrived, Kranz says she opened it and began crying. It was an exact match.
“It was her ring,” said Kranz. “Jennifer was a spicy little girl — this totally suited her personality to go against what I told her to do. She liked to do things her way, and so somehow, she got it back to us through this complete stranger, in her own timing.”
Recently, Jennifer’s ring was made into a blown glass replica through a project sponsored by the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center. While Kranz has not yet seen the replica in person, she says she is deeply moved that an important personal item was transformed into a work of art.
“You look at these things that your child touched and loved, and it brings back memories,” said Kranz. “I think these mementos allow us to remember, and to pass our children on to others – to keep their memory alive.”
“When your child’s gone, all you have are memories.”